On the eve of Remembrance Day Stephen Cooper traces the life of an Ampleforth boy who fell in a hail of fire in the First World War
On a cold January day, 89 Jermyn Street glows with warmth. Past mahogany fittings from the 1851 Great Exhibition is the office of the chairman. On the table sit a small bundle of letters, tied with faded ribbon of the type that lawyers use, and a slim booklet in burgundy, like a battered passport. This diary, kept against regulations, and the letters from “3892 Bodenham, A Company, 3 Platoon” to his “dearest father” cover 10 months of active service in Flanders fields and France, up to June 29, two days before Bodenham’s death on the most notorious day in British military history. Together they tell the story of a Rifleman on the Western Front in 1916.
John Bodenham, known as Jack, was born in 1890, the last of 16 children of James Radford Dutton Bodenham and Mary Ann Femenias Bodenham. His mother was descended from a Menorcan, Juan Femenias Floris, who came to London in 1730. He founded the firm of perfumers which still bears his name and sells its fragrances worldwide from its original shop on Jermyn Street (once a residence of the Duke of Marlborough,
in fashionable St James).
Jack was born and raised in substantial Ivy Lodge in Acton, west London. Photographs show how it earned its name: the mansion is swallowed by ivy up to the castellated roofline. Windows fight their way through the foliage. Potted palms line the pathway. Only a dog kennel escapes the greenery. The verdant garden is the setting for snapshots of Jack’s childhood and youth. His sister Dorothy (Dora) smiles knowingly at the camera: Jack, two years younger, dressed in his sailor suit, has dozed off on her shoulder as she reads to him. In a later portent of the soldier-to-be, Jack stands to attention with a military rifle as tall as he is. Scroll forward to a boy of 15, sitting proudly at the foot of a tower of handsome elder brothers: Charlie, Jim and Frank. As Ivy Lodge garden grows, so Jack matures. In this green space, bright tennis whites are exchanged for drab khaki, as he poses shyly for the camera in his ill-fitting new uniform in early 1915.
Like his brothers, Jack attended the boarding school at Ratcliffe College, Leicestershire. Two years followed at Ampleforth College, the “Catholic Eton” in North Yorkshire. Along with his parents’ example and encouragement, this instilled in him a deep faith. Catholics in Edwardian Britain were a minority of some 1.5 million souls, spanning rich landed gentry and poverty-stricken Irish immigrants. Ampleforth would give Jack a love of religion, but not yet of rugby football; the game was not adopted until 1911. Not until 1925, however, did a Catholic play rugby for England.
On returning to London, Jack entered training as a perfumer at Floris and as a rugby player at Rosslyn Park FC. In the firm’s tradition he is sent to France with the dual aims of learning the language and the art of perfumery at the House of Roure Bertrand et Fils, with which Floris has done business since the 1880s. Jack’s mastery of French later comes in useful for less refined requests than pomades, essential oils and orange blossom water.
When war comes, Jack volunteers with the 1/16th London Regiment, Queen’s Westminster Rifles (QWR). The Territorial atmosphere would be familiar, if slightly less sweet-smelling than Floris: before the war, these units were like family firms.
In feverish August 1914 a high proportion had volunteered for service overseas: the QWR was the second Territorial unit into France. A year later, it was Jack’s turn. His battalion had been in the Armentières sector since November and needed regular replenishment from England. On Tuesday August 31 1915, his six months training completed, Jack and a draft of 180 comrades leave Richmond Park for the boat from Southampton that will take him over to a very different France.
This was no distant colonial war: the battlefields were little more than a day trip away, just as they are today. The Atalanta takes the Queen’s men across the Channel to Le Havre in a violent thunderstorm.
Letters are written and received though a postal system processing 11 million letters a week and 60,000 parcels a day by 1916. Food parcels from home start to arrive and “the contents are much appreciated in the tent”. His comrades must have rejoiced at Jack’s 11 sisters, who send regular parcels to supplement the bully beef, biscuits or “bread and mustard pickles for breakfast” that provided the Army’s theoretical 4,193 daily calories for frontline troops.
Amid the school camp atmosphere, there are more sinister reminders of war. Drafts of men leave regularly for the trenches at night – always under cover of darkness. “All this week there were rumours of big British advance about to take place.” This is Loos, where 8,251 of 10,000 British troops in the second day’s attack are casualties.
Apprehension prompts a change of routine, as he prepares his soul for the worst. The diary entries are terse. But a long, chatty letter responds to snippets of home news, clearly drawing comfort in the imagined life of his family in England, and taking refuge from his fears in the quotidian and mundane. He writes of Ampleforth friends suffering from dysentery in the Dardanelles, Chancellor McKenna’s Budget and concern for his senior brother: “I wonder whether Charlie is to be sent abroad shortly. If he goes to the Dardanelles he will, at least, have missed the most trying weather of the year there.” Charles, aged 40, joined the Hampshire Yeomanry at the outbreak and will die on the Marne
in August 1918, months short of the Armistice.
All ranks were peculiarly saddened by the destruction of churches in France and Belgium. While not always observant or even God-fearing men, they respected the church in their home parish as a symbol of authority and rectitude. To find these holy places reduced to ashes and dust was visible proof that God was not in his heaven and all was certainly not right in this world war. They took consolation where they could: “A massive crucifix… still standing intact among a sea of debris; all around shattered and yet this untouched – miraculous.” For the devout Catholic Jack Bodenham, the offence against God and nature was a deeper wrong than the war itself. Nor did it make it easy for him to attend Mass, receive Communion or confess his sins, but he persevered.
While Jack’s letters show concern for the domestic tribulations of Chiswick, the diary captures the alternating trials and tedium of trench life. The blithe face he wears in correspondence is exchanged for emotionless stoicism. His precise recording of time goes beyond regulated military efficiency. It is as if he is trying to impose order on the disrupted hours of a world turned inside out, as night becomes day, and any semblance of routine is shelled into incoherence.
Jack’s father arranged for The Ampleforth Journal to be sent to France. After the war the editor, the Rev Marshall, comments on Jack’s diary: “If we knew no more of him than could be learnt from its pages it would be impossible to doubt the uprightness of his character and that love of his religion which was one of his marked characteristics at school.” He further notes that “Fr Edmund was very much struck by the frequent Communions and Masses. It certainly was a mercy that he was able to get to Mass so regularly.”
As winter deepens, Jack becomes a nocturnal animal. Fatigues are carried out under cover of darkness, as daylight visibility constrains all movement. On Thursday November 18 1915, the QWR are relieved, although not before two comrades, Jackson and Bennett, are killed in the trench after stand-down. Their tired march back through Ypres is “very slow & straggly”. Jack emerges from front-line darkness to a daylight round of inspection parades, morning runs, regular meals and village visits for coffees, boiled eggs and a good wash.
His devotional routine also revives his spirits. “High Mass in very nice church (in Houtkerque) at 10.30 with sermon in English by Belgian priest for benefit of several of us English Tommies present. Quite a good sermon. ‘God Save the King’ sung by the choir in English at finish.”
By December 9 the QWR boys are back at the front, this time in the reserve trenches. News arrives from home that Charles has his commission, and that under the Zeppelin threat London now shares the blackouts of the front. December is spent digging trenches on the Yser Canal bank under shrapnel fire, which forces them to work while kneeling and crouching in the trench. Jack experiences a new weapon: “Gas attack & heavy bombardment from 5am to 730am. On our left the 14th Durhams got the gas & further on our left an attack is said to have been made on a three-mile front against the Shropshires.” The 25th is celebrated with nine glum words: “On guard till 4pm. Weather fair. Some Christmas Day.”
With spring and his battalion’s move south to the Somme comes another change: Jack’s diary entries again become briefer, noting only the weather and Sunday Mass, as if he has lost enthusiasm for recording the details of his daily life. In May, constant fatigues even disrupt his Sunday observance.
In contrast, his letters to his father grow fuller and more thoughtful.
June 1916 brings nightly digging of a new front line at Hebuterne – 150 yards from German positions at Gommecourt, at the northern end of the 18-mile Somme front. Exhaustion and apprehension at the “Big Push” reduce him to monosyllables in his diary, but he carefully notes the celebrant at each Mass. On June 28 the attack is postponed due to bad weather. The next day he makes his final entry: “Weather fine but cloudy. Had quiet time at St Amand.” He writes a letter, which will also be his last, which ends: “All goes well with me. Trusting everybody keeps well & with very best love. Your Affectionate Son, Jack.”
He writes no more in his diary.
The unexpected reprieve has silenced him. There is nothing more to be said. Before battle, wills in Army pay books were signed, cumbersome greatcoats handed in and personal effects left for forwarding to next of kin. At Zero Hour – 0730 on Saturday July 1 (weather fine and hot, with an early mist that clears) – the whistle blows. Jack and pals climb their ladders and go over the top. In the London morning air the rumble of the massive mines that herald the attack is distinctly heard. Windowpanes tremble in the peaceful shires of Sussex and Kent. That Saturday evening, the audience at a performance of Brahms’s Requiem in Southwark Cathedral cannot know how many Englishmen now rest in peace in French soil. Nor can they hear the maimed and torn screaming in No Man’s Land.
During this “diversionary” attack on Gommecourt, the QWR will lose all 28 officers and 475 out of 661 riflemen – more than 73 per cent casualties in one day. One rifleman recalled: “All hell was let loose .. I remember feeling that there was not enough air to breathe –
so many shells were bursting. Small bodies of men simply disappeared when a shell burst near them.”
Jack Bodenham was one who “simply disappeared”. Like so many that day, his body was never recovered. The battles of 1918 raged again over this landscape of mass graves and hasty burials and pounded the decomposed remains to dust. In 1920, the War Office will write to his father from Brussels regretting “that the task of finding and identifying the bodies will in many cases prove impossible, owing to the terrible state of the ground”. In all likelihood, his bodily shell is just as badly churned as the clay and chalk; his devout Catholic soul has surely ascended. Jack’s father will send a generous sum to Ampleforth for its war memorial subscription, In memory of his youngest child and “affectionate son”.
On that single July day at the Somme, the British Army lost more men than it did in the Crimean, Korean and Boer wars combined. The Times nevertheless saw fit to announce: “Good Progress. All counter-attacks repulsed.” Jack Bodenham is one of 19,240 men who lost their lives, mostly in an opening 90 minutes of frenzied slaughter by machine gun fire. The morning sunshine in France now falls upon his name chiselled on the vast bulk of the Thiepval Memorial. His official Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) details are scanter than most and only through the kindness of strangers have I learned so much of his life.
He now lives again in memory, on these pages.
This is an extract from The Final Whistle: The Great War in Fifteen Players by Stephen Cooper, published by The History Press, priced £14.99